Of all the time-honored failings for which we criticize sitting presidents — by "we" I mean pundits, academics and other members of the chattering phylum — two charges stand out: imperialism and shrinkage. Usually it's one or the other.
When the president is unpopular or when he's lost control of his agenda or when he just seems inadequate to the demands of the job, the headline "The Incredible Shrinking Presidency" proliferates like kudzu. When the
The flip side of the shrinking presidency is the imperial presidency, something we've been fretting by name since at least
Politically, what is remarkable is that Obama seems to be doing both at the same time. His "Year of Action" — intended to dispel that lame-duck scent — is simultaneously Caesar-like and pathetic. Last week, he announced that he would unilaterally raise the minimum wage for federal contractors seeking new work. Only 1% of the workforce makes the minimum wage, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and vanishingly few of them work for the federal government. This probably explains why the
Yet, at the Democratic retreat last week, Obama threw cold water on the idea that he could do much more on immigration from the Oval Office, saying there are "outer limits to what we can do by executive action."
Some of his unilateral actions are a bigger deal, of course. The
The "Year of Action" should actually be seen as a replay of President Clinton's small-ball comeback after the 1994 midterms. Clinton picked micro-initiatives — school uniforms, the V-chip, etc. — that poll-tested well but amounted to very little in terms of policy. The clever twist Obama is putting on his micro-agenda is doing it in a way that successfully baits many conservatives into making the case that he's more powerful and relevant than he really is.
Substantively, however, the imperial presidency continues to metastasize. "The presidency," the Cato Institute's Gene Healy has written, "keeps shrinking, but with an executive branch of some 2.1 million civilian employees and counting, it never gets any smaller." As a branch of government, it has grown under Republicans and Democrats alike. Some curbs were put on the office under
"Those who tried to warn us back at the beginning of the New Deal of the dangers of one-man rule that lay ahead on the path we were taking toward strong, centralized government may not have been so wrong," Democratic Sen. Alan Cranston of California remarked in 1973 during Watergate.
That's a lesson Democrats would do well to ponder, because they are rhetorically giving Obama license to do whatever he likes. Rep.
They shouldn't be surprised if the next Republican president takes advantage of that license.